“Sushi is the trademark cuisine of Japan, while Korea is famous for pickled cabbage [kimchi]. Yet few people know that bubble tea actually hails from Taiwan,” said Ko Ning-hui (葛寧卉), the Taiwanese proprietor of a Swiss-based bubble tea shop who is determined to bring her home country to wider attention through the sweet, ice-cold beverage.
Ko’s self-assigned mission to make the birthplace of pearl or bubble tea known to the world began a few years ago when she was studying for a masters in business administration in the US and was in a relationship with a Swiss man, who later became her husband.
On one occasion, Ko’s then-boyfriend tried to describe to her — with occasional use of body language — a “perfect and wonderful cup of tea” he just had at a store in Los Angeles.
It turned out that what he had believed was an American product was actually bubble tea.
“While it is not news that bubble tea is available in many countries and has made a splash in the US and in some European nations, such as France and Germany, relatively few people are aware of its place of origin,” Ko said.
After marrying, Ko settled in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she spent nearly three years carrying out market research before deciding to introduce bubble tea to local residents.
To gauge the popularity of the drink, Ko initially served it for free as an accompaniment for diners who ordered set meals.
Although some diners said that the drink just seemed to be sweetened milky tea that “came with fish eyes,” it was gradually accepted by consumers following eight months of marketing by Ko.
Ko then went on to open her first bubble tea store in Lausanne about a year ago, which she named Kony Bubble Tea Taiwan.
Shortly after opening the shop, she became pregnant with her second child.
After the birth, Ko insisted on breastfeeding her child, and said she had to wake up about four times a night to nurse the newborn before starting her working day at 7am, preparing ingredients for the store.
In addition to struggling to balance her career with her family responsibilities, Ko said that she also faced problems over cultural differences between her and her husband.
Despite their occasional quarrels, Ko’s husband still helped her cook the chewy balls for the bubble tea and delivered them to the store daily, providing much-needed support, she said.
Ko said that running the tea shop has also opened her eyes to the darker side of human nature, citing an employee she laid off because of his alleged ambition to copy her bubble tea manufacturing know-how, and also his inappropriate behavior such as pretending that he was in charge of the store.
“After being fired, the man even slandered my tea shop and threatened to open his own store nearby to poach my customers,” Ko said.
Despite many bumps along the road, Ko’s tea shop gained in popularity after it was featured in the “Sooishi” food blog and in the French-language newspaper Le Temps.
Ko’s success has won her praise from the Taipei Cultural and Economic Delegation in Switzerland, as well as an invitation to a WTO-initiated global festival in which she introduced bubble tea to representatives from 157 WTO member states.
“Persistent adherence to my principles was the key to getting where I am today,” Ko said, referring to her decision to import all necessary equipment and ingredients, such as taro and red azuki beans, from Taiwan, to bring the most authentic bubble tea to her customers.
Ko plans to open another bubble tea shop in Lausanne on March 9, and to possibly open a chain store in Geneva in June or July.
“What I run is not just a store, but rather a stronghold from which Taiwan can gaze upon the world,” Ko said.